New Wave Circus


by James Henke

Rolling Stone Magazine, July 24, 1980

If Chris Difford had his way, Squeeze's recent sold-out shows at New York's Bottom Line would have been more like a three-ring circus than a rock concert. "I wanted to organize a whole series of events," the group's rhythm guitarist-lyricist explains in his quiet but enthusiastic manner. "You know, like have fire-eaters outside in the street, a couple of tap dancers, a belly dancer - just to give an extra touch to the show, to give it some atmosphere. Then there would have been extra press, extra interest. That's why the Stones have always been successful."

Though this kind of good-humored self-promotion might cause rock purists to raise their eybrows in disdain, Difford and the other members of Squeeze - guitarist Glenn Tilbrook, keyboardist Jools Holland, drummer Gilson Lavis, and bassist John Bentley - think that's exactly what they need to make their mark here.

In the past two years, they've racked up a string of Top Twenty hits in their native Britain, including two that made it to Number Two ("Up the Junction" and "Cool For Cats," the latter being A&M's biggest-selling UK single ever). In addition, Squeeze has managed to secure hearty endorsements from the likes of Paul McCartney (who mentioned them favourably in a Rolling Stone interview last July), Nick Lowe (who once said they were the only British band he'd consider producing) and Elvis Costello (who reportedly ordered his Attractions to study the Cool For Cats LP). And now Squeeze is hungering for US acceptance.

"America seems to be a place that thrives on heavy-duty promotion," Difford says as he picks at a plate of seafood in the Gramercy Park Hotel dining room. "It's like hamburgers: you've really got to get out there and sell it. Besides, we've got plenty of songs suitable for AM airplay."

Indeed. Argybargy, Squeeze's latest album (preceded by UK Squeeze and Cool For Cats), is full of such celver, hook-laden pop songs as "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)," "Another Nail For My Heart," and "If I Didn't Love You." Thanks to Tilbrook's McCartney-like vocals and some relatively intricate song structures, the band's sound quickly brings to mind the middle- and late-period Beatles (a comparison the group is tiring of). But Squeeze's influences extend beyond the British invasion; a variety of styles ranging from jazz to pub rock crop up in their music.

Equally intriguing are Difford's lyrics, most of which are succinct vignettes about everyday occurrences (often sexual) in the lives of everyday people (almost always British). "I like building my characters within my songs and repeating them in places," Difford says. "It's like writing a book. You really have to know the characters you're writing about, down to their every habit - when they bite their nails, that sort of thing. Like, the characters in 'Vicky Verky' (a tune on the new album) are in 'Up the Junction.' They're kind of a collection of people who drink in a pub across the road from where I live."

While Difford writes all of the band's lyrics, Tilbrook writes the lion's share of the music. It's an extremely productive partnership; the two claim to have written between 600 and 900 songs since their first meeting eight years ago. "Chris put an advert in a shop window saying he was looking for a guitarist for a recording band - influences: Lou Reed, Kinks, Glenn Miller," the genial Tilbrook recalls. "That summed up the various things I was into, so I answered it, and I found out there was no band and there were no recording prospects."

Nonetheless, he and Difford began performing and writing together. By 1974, they had added Holland on keyboards and Harry Kakoulli on bass (he was replaced by Bentley last year), and in 1976 Lavis joined on drums. "It's a pretty good situation for us to have been together that long, through periods when we had no money coming in and no gigs," Tilbrook says. "It definitely cements your relationship. When you've been through rough times like that, there's a certain spirit that I don't think you can get just by forming a band with good musicians."

That spirit is evident onstage. Though Squeeze has no real frontman ("There are five individual characters in the band, and there's no reason to submerge one in favor of another," Tilbrook says), Holland seems to command the most attention. Dressed in a huge black cowboy hat, shades, and a gray suit, the slight keyboardist had the Bottom Line audience in stitches as he offered up wacky, off-the-cuff introductions with the enthusiasm of a used-car salesman and clowned around with an oversize harmonica, a gift from an A&M exec. His honky-tonk style of playing (most obvious on his version of Ray Charles' "Mess Around") added an extra dimension to the band's guitar-oriented sound, which, driven along by Lavis' thunderous drumming, took a much harder edge onstage.

"I think what I like about Squeeze is that we're able to keep that element of amateurism in our shows," Tilbrooks says. "It's not a serious, intense experience. We can be really forceful and powerful without communicating a sense of self-importance. I think it's a shame that so many bands lose their sense of humor on the road."

Fortunately, that hasn't happened to Squeeze - and if they have anything to do with it, it never will. "We have this idea that when we get sick of the whole business and want to give it up, we'll do a 'blow-it' tour where we'll do everything wrong," Tilbrook explains. "Like, I could play a bit on banjo and Chris could do a spot on drums and Julian could play harmonica. That would totally wreck any credibility we ever had. What a great way to finish your career!"

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